By Jesse Kornbluth
Talk about an entrance! You hear 2,000 prisoners stomping and clapping for Johnny Cash. You see the guards of Folsom Prison rushing toward the commotion. You watch the band play the same introductory riff over and over.
And then, in a prison wood shop that serves as a dressing room, you see Johnny Cash. He's bent over a buzz saw, a finger on the blade, lost in his thoughts.
Those thoughts -- those memories -- are the engine of Walk the Line, the film about Johnny Cash and June Carter that will bring artistic immortality to Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who not only channel the great country music stars, but very credibly sing their songs.
I am no fan of film reviews that reveal too much of the plot; I much prefer to walk into a movie knowing almost nothing. And so my purpose here is less to describe the movie than to power-wedge you out of your chair and to the multiplex, the better to experience one of the most searing movies you will ever see.
The musical biopic is not generally an experience that rips you apart. In the formulaic version, you get the early inspiration, the years of struggle, the big break and, more often than not, the clichd irony: Success ain't all it's cracked up to be. The celebrity hero ends up sadder and wiser. Or dead. Either way, the moral seems more about show business than anything else.
"Walk the Line" uses some of these conventions, but they're in the service of a very big idea: how a primal wound can wreck a life. For Cash, that wound came when his brother was killed in a sawmill accident. His brother had dreams of becoming a preacher; Johnny saw only goodness in him. After his death, Johnny can't help believing -- his father even says it -- that the wrong son died. ("Where were you?" his father sneers. Well, Johnny had been fishing, with not a care in the world.)But a fire burns in this kid; he wants to make music. Early in the film, there's a terrific scene when Johnny auditions for Sam Phillips in Memphis. He plays a corny gospel number. The producer -- already on his way to glory -- takes the time to tell Johnny that he sings without conviction. Does he have any songs that come from his heart -- from his rage, his ambition, his dreams? Johnny's future is on the line -- and maybe his life. You can see the emotions play across his face. And then he sings "Folsom Prison Blues," a song he wrote when he was in the Air Force, a song with the most memorable lines of his career: "I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die."Failure becomes success. Johnny Cash is launched. But that primal wound is unfinished business; the more successful he becomes, the more it will nag at him. I'm not telling you anything you don't know about Cash when I say the pills that seem so innocent quickly become weapons of self-destruction. He burns through his marriage and begins to trash his career.
And then there is the matter of June Carter. Like Cash, she has children and a checkered romantic history. Unlike him, she has a supportive family. And her self-respect. So while she loves him, she fights -- for years -- against that love, for she understands that this is a troubled man, a demonized man, a man who has always and will always find solutions outside of himself. For two-thirds of the movie, "Walk the Line" is an eye-opening look at a man destined for tragedy. In the final third, he achieves it. Ugly to watch? Unbearable. Every moment is a nail in his self-crucifixion. And when Cash listens to Dylan sing, "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,'" we wonder if the line should be "two sons." For the Man in Black certainly seems bound to join his brother in the grave. The resolution of "Walk the Line" is built on an idea that's radical in American movies: The man is weak and the woman is strong. How strong, how loving, how wise, how determined is June Carter -- that's the real business of the movie. Seen this way, the Johnny Cash story sets the table for the June Carter story. And the payoff is huge. You want to know what real love looks like? What real commitment is? June Carter in "Walk the Line" shows the way.
I've been saying "Johnny" and "June" when I ought to be saying "Joaquin" and "Reese." But to a degree you wouldn't think possible, they disappear into the characters. These are performances that suck you in from the start and never falter; Phoenix and Witherspoon have my vote for every possible award. Who should see this movie? Anyone interested in country music or Johnny Cash. But more: anyone who's in an a relationship where the childhood trauma lingers, where an unwelcome guest is following one (or both) of you around. "Walk the Line" shows you the price you pay for not dealing with it. And, gloriously, the reward to be had for facing your demons. In the end, "Walk the Line" is a love story. And one of the greatest, at that. Bring Kleenex. Prepare to sob. And then, like the prisoners at Folsom, prepare to cheer. Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based journalist and founder of Head Butler.com, a cultural concierge site and free daily e-mail featuring information on new and classic books, movies and music.